I’m driving to work when my wife calls me on my cellphone. Answering using the hands free gizmo my car is immediately filled with the wails of a crying baby.
“Natalie burned herself,” my wife says, choking back tears.
“I was in the kitchen,” Annie says,” I turned my head for a second…”
“She touched the radiator.”
“The small one in the dining room.” We don’t have a “dining room.” A tiny table for four sits in the hallway connecting the kitchen with the rest of our two-bedroom apartment.
“Where’s the burn?” I say, going into “calm dad” mode.
“Her left hand,” Annie says. “I didn’t know what happened at first. She was just sitting on the floor crying. Then I figured she tried pulling herself up by holding onto the radiator.” My daughter has become highly mobile. Upright bipedal locomotion is around the corner. Now the fun begins.
“Run her hand under cool water,” I say. “Don’t put any salve on it.”
“I’ve been running it under water.”
“Does the hand look waxy or weirdly discolored?”
“No. Just red.”
“Probably first degree,” I say. “Just keep running water on it. Cool down the heat trapped in the epidermis. Give her Tylenol for the pain.”
“I feel terrible,” Annie says.
“This stuff happens,” I say. “If she gets a blister call the doctor and then call me.”
Annie hangs up to tend to Natalie’s wounds. Knowing my daughter’s not seriously hurt I go decide to go to work – on a psych ward filled highly acute screaming patients. Just great.
A couple of hours later my wife calls me. Natalie has a blister the size of a jellybean on her hand. The doctor told her to keep the hand clean and dry, continue to medicate the pain and make an appointment for the next morning. When I get home that night my daughter won’t show me her left hand. She’s instinctively not using it. Welcome to the big bad world, little one.
“We’re so careful,” my wife says. “I can’t believe this happened.”
All the steam radiators in our apartment are blocked from Natalie’s probing hands by furniture. But the radiator in the dining room is a tiny two-fin affair that’s hidden under the “dinning room” table. Out of sight, out of mind. I turn it off for good.
“It’s good you assessed the situation so fast,” I tell my wife. “Good job.”
“I still feel guilty.”
The next morning I take my daughter to the doctor who’s not concerned. “I’m prescribing you a salve,” she says. “Just apply it when the blister pops, wrap it in gauze and cover it with a sock.”
“I’m glad it’s not serious.”
The doctor smiles. “This is nothing, trust me.” As I pop Natalie back into her clothes she’s smiling and laughing, having forgotten all about the pain of the previous day.
“You have a very happy daughter,” the doctor says, looking up from her computer.
“Everyone says that,” I say. “People in diners, strangers in the store. I think she was born that way.”
“Nonsense,” the doctor says. “You and you’re wife are doing something right. Don’t shortchange yourselves.”
Feeling quite pleased with myself I pay the bill and exit into the waiting room. A young mother is there with a tiny infant.
“How old?” I ask.
“Time for her shots.”
“Yes,” the mother says. “I’m dreading it.”
“It’ll be over before you know it.”
“How old is your little girl?” the lady says.
“Ten months,” I say. “She burned herself. All better now.”
The mother looks at me in shock. “How did you let that happen?” I say nothing.
The receptionist calls the young mother inside. When she disappears another waiting parent says to me, “Don’t worry. She’ll find out soon enough.”
When I told people about Natalie’s incident I got my fair share of judgmental comments. Most of them came from people who did not have children or parents who blanked out their own child-rearing fuck-ups. Other parents, however, were happy to tell me guilty stories about misfortunes they failed to protect their children from. I heard about, electrocutions, kids slipping out of high chairs, falls down stairs, Olympic diving off beds, dog bites, burns and a toddler falling out of a moving car. The common thread in all these stories was, “I just turned my head for a second.”
I turned my head for a second when I was babysitting my six-month old nephew and he rolled off the changing table and bounced off the floor. I screamed so loud that my landlord’s police officer son charged upstairs to see what happened. As he was checking my nephew over all sorts of horrible outcomes ran through my head. A passing psychiatrist would have committed me on the spot. I was completely prepared to throw myself in front of a train. Luckily my nephew was unhurt.
Now that I’m a father my brother likes to joke that I made all my parenting mistakes on his kid. “If Ethan doesn’t get into Harvard,” he likes to joke, “Blame Uncle Steve.” But when I called him that day to tell him I dropped the most precious thing in his world, he was amazingly gracious. I later realized why. He had dropped his son too. He knew what I had gone through. When he heard about Natalie’s burn he cracked wise about calling Family Services, but he understood. You can’t protect your children 100 percent of the time.
But we sure as hell try. When my daughter was born my wife and I became like AWACS – the radar planes militaries use to scan the airspace for threats and vector fighter intercepts. With eyes constantly revolving like radar domes, we’re always on the lookout for anything that can threaten our little girl. I’ve learned to hate pennies and pieces of fuzz. I dropped a bottle of prescription pills last week and spent half an hour on my knees with a flashlight until every last tablet was accounted for. We’ve installed corner guards; cabinet locks and taped the battery compartments on the remote controls shut. We’re relentless. But that damn radiator was like a stealth bomber, cruising through our defenses and scoring a direct hit.
Like good commanders, my wife and I debriefed after the screw up and adjusted our battle plan. When Natalie’s roaming free we have to be eyes on her. If not we’ll throw her into the playpen. Of course when she’s capable of getting out of her playpen we’ll have to come up with a new plan. But the risks will continue to escalate. Eventually Natalie will demand to climb the monkey bars, do gymnastics, walk around the block alone, date boys, stay out late and drive a car. Life is going to be a constant series of adjustments and risk calculations. I hope my heart can take it.
My wife and I are in agreement that we can’t protect our child from every risk. We’ve seen how helicoptering parents do as much damage as neglectful ones. We have to protect Natalie from everything now, but eventually we’ll have to let her roam free. Or at least give her the illusion of roaming free. I’m still holding out for those implantable tracking devices.
Technological fantasies aside, I know no parent can watch his or her child 24/7. You will “turn your head for a second.” Besides, you have to sleep, crap and have sex sometimes. If you worry about every possible bad thing that might befall your kids you’ll end up in the booby hatch. You have to be vigilant but also trust that things will be okay. The tension between those opposites is the tightrope parents must walk across everyday. I just hope that my wife and I will continue “doing something right.”
As I write this I’m watching Natalie sleeping peacefully. One day I know she’ll come to me crying, wracked by a pain that my sweet endearments and caresses will not heal. I’ll have to raise her so she can heal herself or have the brains to turn to the right people when she can’t. I will have to teach her to be vigilant but trust in the goodness of the world. My wife and I will have to show her how to walk that tightrope.
But for now Mommy and Daddy are going to circle you like a pair of AWACS.